A version of this article is also published by the Financial Times.
There was a crowd waiting at the bar. The music was loud. The walls were covered in extremely colourful pictures and we had just been served some very good first courses.
These included a prawn toast with shaved cabbage; a dish entitled ‘slightly fires the emperor’ that incorporated garlic chive flowers, chorizo sausage, cashews and shiitake mushrooms; and a special of the evening that involved a chicken whose skin was crisp but whose meat was particularly succulent. These dishes are the hallmark of Taiwanese-born chef Jowett Yu (pictured), although the waitress who looked after us hailed from north Manchester.
We were sitting in Ho Lee Fook, which translates from the Cantonese as ‘good fortune for your mouth’, a restaurant that for the past two years has occupied the basement space of Number 1 Elgin Street, in Hong Kong’s Central District. In the lull before our main courses arrived, Chris Black approached our table, introduced himself, handed me his business card and then, in the manner of all good restaurateurs, promptly disappeared from view.
Main courses of grilled pork belly with a Taiwanese caper salsa and their signature dish of roast Wagyu short ribs with a soy glaze were just as exciting as one particular dessert that incorporated Horlicks ice cream, oats, dried loganberries and coffee crumbs before I was overcome by jet lag. But not before I had arranged to meet Black 48 hours later.
When I sat outside the restaurant at 5 pm I saw it in a different, somewhat less glamorous, light. It is located just above a busy intersection opposite a hawker stall and a rubbish collection point. And there is a second-hand clothes rail to the left of the front door. Yet the restaurant’s entrance itself is striking.
Immediately inside is an open kitchen in which half a dozen chefs, wearing blue and white striped aprons, are hard at work in front of several suspended ducks. On the wall by the staircase that leads down to the restaurant, gold-plated cats raise their right paw as though in welcome.
When I asked Black about this striking entrance he promptly smiled, with relief, as I was to learn. It occupies a site on which everything that had been attempted over the past 15 years had failed, but he was encouraged to look at because it belongs to his business partner’s family. Having met Yu, a chef trained in the Chinese cooking style of David Chang of Momofuku fame in New York, and deciding that they could work together, he set about trying to configure the space as it would normally be for a restaurant in such a location with the kitchen in the basement and the restaurant on the ground floor.
But the basement could not be satisfactorily ventilated, and no design upstairs would ease the oppressive ceiling or its asymmetrical entrance. So the notion of switching the kitchen and restaurant took hold, ultimately to everyone’s satisfaction.
Black, by contrast, is the antithesis of the instant success. Now 41, and originally from Toronto, Canada, he trained for 20 years as a chef, a profession that took him to the Caribbean, Japan and Australia before he moved to Hong Kong in 2006 to work for the Dining Concepts group, a major Hong Kong hospitality group.
For the past few years, Black and his partner Syed Asim Hussain have been evolving their own group of restaurants, of which there are currently 12 trading under the Black Sheep name, most of them in SoHo, named after its London counterpart but signifying south of Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road. ‘Of those we have opened only two that are the same, a pizza restaurant called Motorino, the rest are all distinctive. And I like this particular part of town because although the rents may be high, there is such a huge volume of potential custom from locals who work here and those staying in the many hotels nearby.’
It was this potential volume that induced Black, after considerable agonising, to make Ho Lee Fook a no-booking restaurant. ‘This gives the kitchen the opportunity to do the numbers, and we can serve 300 on a busy night, because the customers can optimise their time of arrival. It is a process that can deliver great value for everyone.’
Black enthused about four more recent openings: Carbone, on the 9th floor of the Lan Kwai Fung Tower, an arrangement with the Major Food Group, the ever-growing company that will take over the Four Seasons location in New York; Belon, in conjunction with chef James Henry, who was cooking at Bones in Paris and forms part of a seemingly ever-expanding contingent of chefs from France who have now settled in Hong Kong; Maison Libanaise, a Middle Eastern restaurant that occupies a three-storey space close to Ho Lee Fook. And finally, there is The BA Polo Club, an Argentine steak house.
Black shares certain traits that link him to other successful restaurateurs who have emerged from a long stint in the kitchens and in a highly competitive city many miles from his hometown: Ulster-born Des McDonald in London, the Australian Michelle Garnaut in Shanghai and Beijing, and Vietnamese-born Charles Phan, who has made The Slanted Door such a success in San Francisco, have all done pretty well also.
Ho Lee Fook 1 Elgin Street, Hong Kong; tel +852 2810 0860
Open from 6 pm Monday-Sunday